The closure Friday of Electro-Motive plant in London, Ont., paints a bleak picture for the future of the Canadian manufacturing industry, one expert says, adding the “writing was on the wall” for the southwestern Ontario plant long before the closure became official.
Progress Rail, a U.S.-based subsidiary of giant Caterpillar Inc., closed the Electro-Motive plant’s doors Friday after prolonged unsuccessful contract negotiations and a month after more than 450 workers were locked out. The closure added to a worrisome trend, says Western University economist Mike Moffatt.
“Unfortunately, I don’t see any silver lining here for the workers,” said Moffatt of the London, Ont., university’s Richard Ivey School of Business. “No company has suggested that they’re going to buy this plant from Caterpillar and have it manufacture something else. It’s just a combination of the high Canadian dollar, a poor U.S. labour market and these weakening labour laws in the United States makes Canada — and southwestern Ontario — a particularly more expensive place to do manufacturing.
“Not only is this closure a problem, but I fully expect this trend to continue. Sadly, it’s not the end.”
In a statement Friday, the company said the situation was “regrettable” and cited the ability to remain competitive among its reasons for the decision.
“The cost structure of the operation was not sustainable and efforts to negotiate a new, competitive collective agreement were not successful,” the company said, adding that its delivery schedules to its customers would not be affected by the closure of the London facility.
The Canadian Autoworkers Union called the closure “callous” and insisted that closing the plant was the company’s intention from the beginning of the labour dispute.
Benjamin Tal, deputy chief economist with CIBC World Markets, said the entire manufacturing industry is in the process of change in Canada. He said, however, that while the industry is primed to look very different, it isn’t doomed.
Tal said Canada is likely undergoing a transformation into a “leaner” and “more dynamic” manufacturing industry that will remain very efficient, but less reliant on human resources and more on mechanical and technological alternatives.
“What I do see in the manufacturing sector is not a diminishing sector, but I see a smaller, but more flexible and dynamic sector in the future,” Tal said.
“We’re in the process of restructuring the manufacturing sector due to the strong Canadian dollar and globalization. This process is not over, although we are getting closer to the manufacturing sector of tomorrow. What I’m seeing is a manufacturing sector that is very flexible, but will not be a huge employer. Most of the improvement will be in capital-intensive, high-tech stuff and that will not require a lot of labour.”
Moffatt said the decision is a further blow to an already vulnerable region of the country that has been dealt repeated blows in terms of lost manufacturing opportunities.
“It certainly hurts London and southwestern Ontario. We were already a region with the highest unemployment rate in Canada, due to a number of plant closings,” he said.
“We’ve seen a lot of manufacturing job loss over the last 18 to 24 months. Now there are 450 more workers who are unemployed, who won’t be spending nearly as much money in the community, so this tends to have a cascading effect. … It’s something that London has experienced before, but it’s sort of piling on an already difficult situation.”
When it comes to tax breaks for companies to operate in Canada — such as the well publicized $5-million federal tax break given to Electro-Motive for its London-based operations — Tal said changes aren’t necessary.
“I think the business sector as a whole is going to be the new driver of economic growth and anything that will help (such as government tax breaks for companies) is a good thing.”
Tal also said the “very slow process” of change is shifting manufacturing focus away from the U.S. and into emerging markets, such as China, India, Brazil and Mexico.
Workers at Electro-Motive had been off the job since New Year’s Day after rejecting a new collective agreement that would have lowered the salaries of some workers currently paid $35 an hour to $18 an hour. Despite the closure announcement, picket lines remained active at the site on Friday.
The company apparently intends to relocate its operation to a facility in Muncie, Indiana, where Moffat says it will have an easier time moving ahead with less resistance from workers.
He said new workers there were being trained, with a plant being expanded despite running at only one-third of its capacity.
On Wednesday, Indiana became just the second U.S. state in 20 years to enact right-to-work laws, which allow a unionized workplace to have voluntary enrolment.
He said that practice often leads to a lot of “freeloading,” which results in underfunded unions with less clout in the negotiating room.